The early morning cashiers in Publix know me very well. I am the one wearing a kippah who refuses to bag my groceries in plastic bags no matter how many items I buy. Of course, I usually have my own bag with me, the one that Publix sells very inexpensively. Sometimes I don’t and I find myself in a funny position having to juggle numerous items in my hands, hoping that nothing will fall by the time I reach my car. I have to ignore the justifiably strange looks I get from others when that happens.
I don’t think Publix existed yet in biblical times. The blessing of plastic, Styrofoam and other man made inventions which can never be decomposed are all modern time conveniences. Therefore, after careful consideration I can safely say that the Torah said nothing about plastic or any other modern man made material and therefore was not aware of the enormous challenge of handling them.
Nevertheless, the Torah’s awareness of Mother Earth’s vulnerability is certainly no less than ours. Enter the holiday of Tu B’Shvat. The celebration which occurs on the 15th day of the month of Shvat (the fifth month of the Jewish year) was not commanded in the Torah as such. It became a holiday centuries later in the spirit of the Torah’s explicit and uncompromised concern for Earth’s welfare.
Originally Tu B’Shvat was dedicated to planting trees. It denotes the beginning of a yearly cycle for determining the age of fruit trees. The age of trees is vital information needed to follow certain biblical agricultural laws. Today, however, the holiday has evolved into a celebration of Mother Earth. In fact, there are many related biblical instructions concerning Mother Earth’s welfare which are significant for us in a modern-day context.
The Torah no doubt should be credited with advocating respect and appreciation for nature at a time that other nations were too busy fighting and killing each other. While The Torah did not know about reducing carbon emissions or plastic or other modern time specific ecological challenges, it clearly laid out clear guidelines regarding man’s attitude towards the preservation of our Earth.
The Torah, especially the Book of Psalms or even the Book of Job often glorifies Earth and all its creatures as G-D unique creations. It contains many ecological laws concerning the land, trees and animals. The oceans, mountains, a variety of animals, and all of nature’s wonders are regarded as G-D’s special handiwork.
It is, therefore of utmost importance for man to carefully preserve it. In fact, in the story of creation G-D explicitly instructed humans to be the loyal custodians of Earth, to watch over Earth and all of its inhabitants. The most famous law is “Bal Tashchit” which translates as do not destroy. While it originally referred to fruit bearing trees (in the Book of Deuteronomy), it has been understood throughout Jewish history as a directive for the careful preservation of Mother Nature.
The Bal Tashchit law takes on a highly significant meaning for us, living in modern times. Of course, the Torah did not know about our modern day need to find ways to properly dispose of or even safely eliminate so many complex manmade materials and chemicals as well as dealing with many kinds of pollutants.
However The Torah makes it very clear that we are expected to do our utmost to find ways to eliminate mountains of garbage which cannot be decomposed all over the world. I strongly believe that If we are sophisticated enough to produce complex materials to make our life easier and safer we can find ways to eliminate them safely beyond the temporary (though workable) solution of recycling.
Tu B'Shvat has experienced an amazing transformation from a holiday which celebrates the importance of replenishing our Earth with trees to a day to honor all aspects of nature. It is a time to think about the real challenges of preserving Earth in our modern times.
Happy Tu B’Shvat!
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